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Winter: The Season for Itchy Skin

Gene Rubinstein, MD News

There are a lot of great things to look forward to as winter approaches. One thing, though, that many people are not at all excited about is the return of drier air, which can cause dry skin—or what dermatologists call “winter itch.”

Skin sometimes has trouble staying naturally moisturized this time of year, when humidity is lower outdoors and heated indoor air is especially dry. As the skin dries out, it may chap or crack, which can result in irritation and itchiness. This is particularly true as we age; by your mid-40s, you may start noticing that your legs sometimes feel itchy in the wintertime, and you may experience dry skin elsewhere on your body too.

Fortunately, there are a few fairly simple changes you can make to your personal care routine that may help you combat dry skin:

No hot water. Because it evaporates so quickly, hot water can rob your skin of its natural moisture. When you shower or otherwise wash your skin, use lukewarm or cool water.

Stay away from soap. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cleanse your skin! Just avoid products labeled “soap,” as these types of cleansers tend to dry out the skin. Instead, use a milder alternative, such as Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser, Dove or CeraVé.

Think “cream.” To provide maximum moisture for your skin, use a cream product rather than a lotion. Creams have a lower water content and, therefore, are more moisturizing. Examples of good cream moisturizers are Cetaphil, Eucerin and CeraVé.

Go skin-friendly. How you treat your skin on a daily basis can have a big impact on its moisture level. Follow these tips to maximize the amount of moisture your skin retains:

  • Shower or bathe once a day.
  • Use a cleanser only on your face, hands, feet, armpits and groin.
  • Use water only on dry-skin areas—no soap or cleanser of any type.
  • After rinsing, lightly towel off.
  • Apply moisturizer within 45 seconds of exiting the shower or tub. This helps to lock moisture into your skin before it can evaporate.

For many people, dry skin can be a long-term issue that returns on a regular basis, especially in winter. If you treat your skin in the way described above and the condition doesn’t resolve within two weeks—or if you have swelling in your skin—it’s important to make an appointment to see a dermatologist. He or she can accurately diagnose your skin problem and provide the proper treatment advice.

There are a number of factors that can make an existing dry skin issue even worse. It’s important to be aware of these things and to take precautions.

Travel. When we leave our homes and stay elsewhere, we sometimes forget to bring our health routines with us. For instance, you may be tempted to leave your gentle cleanser at home and instead use whatever soap or body wash your hotel provides. However, these soaps and washes often contain perfumes, which can be harsh on the skin—especially in people who are susceptible to dry skin. Make it a priority to bring your cleansers with you.

Sunburn. Many of us are sun-conscious in the summer, but it’s just as important to protect ourselves against sun damage in the winter. When it’s cold out, you’re more likely to ignore overexposure because your skin won’t feel hot like it does in the summer. It is extremely important to apply sunscreen to exposed skin and to reapply often if you’re sweating. Furthermore, if you’re in the mountains for a skiing or sledding trip, the higher altitude exposes you to a bigger dose of dangerous UVB rays. To compensate for this, you should choose the next higher SPF than you normally use.

Medications. Some types of medications make your skin more prone to drying out. One surprising category is anti-cholesterol medications. Your body uses cholesterol to make substances that moisturize the skin, so when you cut back on the cholesterol, you might find yourself with dry skin. Talk with your primary care physician or dermatologist to see what effect your prescription medications and supplements might be having on your skin.

Gene Rubinstein, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist with offices in Simi Valley and Studio City. He is a member of the Simi Valley Hospital medical staff.